Listening to the same songs over and over rather than seeking out new tunes? You have plenty of company -- if you're 28 or over.
A survey by streaming service Deezer found that the average person reaches "musical paralysis" -- when she or he primarily listens to familiar tracks and does not seek out new genres -- at the age of 27 years and 11 months.
Not too surprisingly an early comment from John Borstlap opened with the declaration that classical music is not average. A response that invokes the not-average-ness of a genre can be said by fans of rock or reggae or jazz or country or whatever the genre may be. I mean, sure, if we were to go by sales figures compared to other genres of music that sells then classical music is the music of the proverbial one to two percent that buy music, and depending on the year that means classical music sells better than jazz, which is at least or more elitist if we simply want to invoke an elite nature that is a reflection of how few people buy the music compared to the overall market of music purchased.
Although ... childrens' music might be the elite of the elite then. The They Might Be Giant's Here Come TheABCs album might top Mahler's Fifth if it's a matter of esoteric niche ...
It would be hard to find a sturdier case study of gebrauchmusik in the last fifteen years and I don't mean that in a bad way. I'm a Hindemith fan, after all.
The reactions I've seen from musicians and composers tend to range from the "my preferred genre is not average" to "I'm more adventurous than average". I get it, I think. There's a desire to believe that the music that "I" like is not average music but that's not even the substance of the news peg. The substance of the news peg is that by the age of 28 people stop seeking out new genres of music. This is hardly a surprise. Since I've been on an Adorno binge in the last few years Adorno pointed out that, we could translate his idiom a bit to say that he proposed that people would tend to cement their stylistic interests in their youth and that popular music would tend to predominantly appeal to youth and that popular styles would be embraced by youth and retained from youth. I.e. you think rock and roll stopped being a vital and compelling musical style somewhere around the age you decided you "grew up" or began to assume enough adult responsibilities that the prospect of seeking out new genres of music stopped being of interest to you.
Now I could invoke my own musical life and say that, well, I started getting into microtonal composers only in my forties and that that's a sign that I'm continuing to explore new musical genres but ... no ... by the time I was 28 I had established that I was open to a variety of avant garde classical music styles while also adoring music from the Renaissance, music from throughout the Baroque era, the high Classic era and particularly Haydn's work, a plethora of 20th century classical music, rock, blues, jazz, slivers of country and ... not nearly as much 19th century classical music. That didn't really change all that much past the age of 28 for me. I'm not going to say that my listening trajectory is somehow above average. The observation from the Deezer survey is not necessarily about or against the self-perceived exceptionalism of people who, so to speak, will imagine that they would always be the dissenters who did not do what they were told to do in the musicological statistical equivalent of some kind of Milgram experiment.
Now I realize that there are some folks who sincerely believe that what music they listen to can, in some mystical kind of way, make them better people.
Music does not construct an identity. Sharing comparable tastes may help constructing a group identity but that is only a surface matter. Classical music helps clarifying one’s identity by resonating here and there in the emotional realm, thereby making things conscious. But it is all a subliminal process, not a rational one.
Classical music is supposed to make us more human, more ourselves, and ‘better people’, by appealing to the better sides of human nature. Which does not mean that it works with everyone, of course. But if the process is meaningful, it stimulates a stronger experience of Self and that may be considered a reinforcing of identity.
Classical music does not make us more human and isn't "supposed to make us more human". But if it were, the same could be said about rap, blues, country, jazz, punk, Tin Pan Alley, showtunes, and all sorts of other musical styles ... if, that is, we grant the not so easily proven assertion that music in general is supposed to make us more human, more ourselves and better people by appealing to the better sides of human nature. If that were the case it would potentially be on the basis of someone reaching such a conclusion about the nature of musical art and ... I suppose I can't resist making a joke here, having come to something like that conclusion somewhere before the age of 28.
But we can let a composer address a practical question, whether there are an infinite variety of ways of combining tones. Why would that matter? It may be apparent to a composer already but I want to quote something from one of my favorite composers about the relationship between what composers create and a listener's capacity for what someone called the ability to make an "active coconstruction" of a piece of music being heard. If you didn't immediately think of Paul Hindemith I can't blame you. He's not exactly a favorite composer of many people these days.
Paul Hindemith wrote a few things in the book A Composer's World that we'll just quote here:
from pages 19-20
... we recognize as a requisite for the listener's active coconstruction the essential possibility of foreseeing and anticipating the musical structure as it arises in the performance, or at least, if the composition is utterly new to the recipient, his being given a chance to conjecture with a high degree of probability its presumable course. A musical structure which due to its extreme novelty does not in the listener's mind summon up any recollections of former experiences, or which incessantly disappoints his constructive expectations, will prevent his creative cooperation. He cannot adjust his sense of proportion to the unfolding structure, he loses the feeling for his position in the sounding terrain, he does not recognize the significance of the single structural members in reference to the entity, he even loses the feeling for the coherence of these members. For him music goes astray, disappears in chaos; it deteriorates into the mere amorphous assembly of sound it was before it entered the zone of active cooperation in the listener's mind.
In view of all this, we may conclude that there is strange as it may sound in the face of countless attempts at modernization of the musical means of expression in principle never anything new in the general order, shape, and mutual relationship of musical successions. We may even go so far as to say that basically nothing new can ever be introduced into such successions, if we do not want to see the participant in music degraded to a dull, apathetic receptacle, an absorbent sponge reaching the point of saturation without showing any sign of reaction.
Once we agree to this statement, our opinion in respect to musical facts will undergo significant changes. What then remains of the importance which we customarily ascribe to all questions of a composer's style? We prefer to think of his tone-combining craft as possessing an infinite variability, even power of eternal regeneration; but it merely permits a limited number of variations within the given limitations of its sounding ingredients. The building material cannot be removed very far away from certain structural, harmonic-tonal, and melodic prototypes, so that the listener can assume an active part in the process of musical realization.
Furthermore, the continual accumulation of experiences in a listener's mind should not be overrated. Once he reaches a certain point of versatility in his power of musical coconstruction, no further progress seems to be possible. Thus his experience, rising from primordial feelings of comparative motion to a climax of lateral cocreation, can be likened to an arc which surges up as part of a tremendous circle and thenslows down and flattens into a parabolic curve. From now on, all musical structures that stand entirely without his previous experience will have to exert their impact many times on his physical and mental receptivity if they are to be added to his stock of accumulated knowledge.
There are, in the end, only so many schematic ways of organizing sound into melodic and harmonic idioms in the realm of music, regardless of style or systems of pitch organization or rhythm. This isn't really a bad thing. The best we can hope for, Hindemith said, was to make sure we were not endlessly going in circles within a narrowly confined conception of what music was.
But note that he wrote that the sheer accumulation of musical experience should not be taken as a sign that the listener's mind had advanced when it came to the matter of what a listener could establish by "coconstruction". A listener can imagine and anticipate where and what may happen in a musical work with sufficient education but past a hard-to-define point that varies with individuals, no new capacity to forecast and imagine the formal possibilities of a musical work get created. A blunter way of putting this is Hindemith was pointing out a rather obvious thing, that there is a law of diminishing returns with music consumption as a way to confer musical cognition. A way to translate this point is to say that you could listen to every single symphony of Mozart and it would not really prepare you to understand what goes on in a Wagner opera or a Mahler symphony. Listening to all of Mozart's symphonies will not give you the cognitive tools to understand what's going on in a fugue by J. S. Bach, and by that I mean you won't understand how fugues work if you've been immersing yourself in sonata forms, rondos, variation movements or even fugues from the later 18th century rather than the later Baroque or early Baroque period. 19th century salon music will not help you start to understand what goes on in a mass by Palestrina or Josquin.
In a similar way, once you understand the ins and outs of how to listen to country or blues or jazz or a popular style these modes of musical cognition do not necessarily overlap. People who don't understand how modes of reification as a cognitive process in listening to music (as distinct from Marxist definitions of reification) are not going to get jazz, and perhaps find jazz terrible. If you don't know the paradigms by which variation guides jazz you won't appreciate a lot of what goes on in a lot of jazz. You will still be able to appreciate a lot of early jazz in which the key structural elements of the songs are front and center. Ellington and Armstrong wrote a lot of music in which the macrostructural units are easy to pick up. The farther along jazz went the more abstract and esoteric the modes of musical cognition became that were necessary precursors to appreciate what was going on. That's awfully sweeping, I know, but I'm trying to make a point about how if you pick up all these modes of musical listening and thinking "in" and "about" music you can go a long way toward appreciating and seeking out new musical experiences.
Rather than see the Deezer associated headline as an opportunity to talk about how "my" musical evolution hasn't stopped and "I" am not like those average people ,the headline (clickbaity as it seems) could be a moment to reflect on whether you had any really revolutionary moments of musical epiphany, a moment where something you'd never before taken seriously as music suddenly became something you could understand and appreciate on the musical terms the music gives you. I found myself unable to enjoy rap and 1990s era R&B for a long time. Eventually one of my relatives played some Cee Lo Green and for whatever reason something clicked. I felt like I "got" what Green was aiming for. He's still not my favorite singer or performer but I don't mind if his work is on the radio, for instance. When I was in my teens I hated country music but some time in my early twenties I somehow got to a point where I felt like I could "get" Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash. I had a similar lack of appreciate for reggae because I just couldn't get into Bob Marley's songs and Bob Marley was the cliche reggae artist my peer group in high school was listening to. One of my siblings brought home some albums by Judy Mowatt and Linton Kwesi Johnson and then, like some kind of lightning bolt, I heard Black Woman and thought "Wow, these songs are amazing!" Dred Beat and Blood was really weird for me ... but it was weird in a way that stuck with me. I managed to add reggae to the catalog of musical styles I could have some appreciation for. This was, I might note, still well before the age of 28.
The string quartets of Bartok and Shostakovich were another ear-opening experience for me. The guitar music of Toru Takemitsu was still another musical lightning bolt. Of course I was also blown away by the string quartets of Haydn. As a choral singer I was completely won over to the works of William Byrd, Maurice Durufle (yes, I know he's not very trendy but he was a very skilled contrapuntist!), and Messiaen. This was all, still, before I turned 28. Now I can have a somewhat limited appreciation of metal. It's not really my thing but I can respect the musicianship that metal musicians can have and I'm told that it's crucial to make a distinction between metalheads and metal nerds. The former listens only to metal, exclusively metal, metal all the time. The latter might also have affection for the string quartets of Bartok or play saxophone in a wind ensemble.
Hindemith's observation seems to hold true, there is some admittedly nebulous point past which a listener listens to a sea of music but with this listening there is simply no corresponding expansion of how that listener thinks about and appreciates music. Hindemith didn't have many nice things to say about a lot of the atonal composers and nascent serialists of his day. Hindemith was convinced that music had to in some way, however indirectly, derive from the overtone series. Even as a Hindemith fan I don't think he was all that successful in how he tried to make that point.
But he made a point about music and emotional expression that I'll quote from:
Other analysts, in explaining the effects of music on the listener, see in music a kind of language which by its peculiar means of expression conveys some meaning, whatever this meaning may be. But the difference is, that in a spoken or written language each verbal expression used has unchangeable connotations, while in music each component of an audible form can be understood and interpreted emotionally in many different ways. The word "river" always means a stream of flowing water, but a certain phrase in C minor may cause one listener to experience some feeling of sadness, while to another listener the same phrase means something entirely different, This discrepancy in interpretation will be particularly obvious in the case of music that is unfamiliar to the recipient Those who have had some experience with oriental people and their music will confirm this observation. In hearing oriental music for the first time, the Western listener usually cannot detect any musical significance in it which it would have, if music was an internationally recognized and understandable .language. The strangeness of its sounds will strike him as funny, even ridiculous, and the only emotional urge he will feel will be a desire to laugh heartily. But this same piece may induce the initiated to feel sad, pathetic, heroic, or whatnot We do not even need to go so far away into foreign regions; sometimes in southern countries church music can be heard which for the visitor from the North has the most exhilarating effect, although it may be intended as funeral music and will have the proper effect of such on the native listener.[emphasis added] ...
The most generally accepted explanation of the effect music has upon a listener is: it expresses feelings. Whose are the feelings it expresses? Those of the composer, the performer, the individual listener, or the audience? Or does it express feelings of a general character, the specification of which is left to the members of any of these groups? Music cannot express the composer's feelings. ...
The reactions music evokes are not feelings, but they are the images, memories of feelings. We can compare these memories of feelings to the memories we have of a country in which we have traveled. The original journey may have taken several weeks or months, but in conjuring up in our memory the events of it, we may go through the entire adventure in a few seconds and still have the sensation of a very complete mental reconstruction of its course.[emphasis added] It is the same trick dreams play on us. They, too, compress the reproductions of events that in reality would need long intervals of time for their development into fractions of a second, and yet they seem to the dreamer as real as adventures he has when he is wide awake. In some cases these dream-events may even be the "real" life of the individual, while the facts they reflect, distort, or rearrange are nothing but an inconsequential and sober succession of trifles.
Dreams, memories, musical reactions all three are made of the same stuff. We cannot have musical reactions of any considerable intensity if we do not have dreams of some intensity, for musical reactions build up, like dreams, a phantasmagoric structure of feelings that hits us with the full impact of real feeling. Furthermore we cannot have any musical reactions of emotional significance, unless we have once had real feelings the memory of which is revived by the musical impression. (The importance of recollection in respect to musical perception has been mentioned in the second chapter.) Reactions of a grievous nature can be aroused by music only if a former experience of real grief was stored up in our memory and is now again portrayed in a dreamlike fashion. "Musical" gaiety can be felt only if a feeling of real gaiety is already known to us; "musical" complacency arises in our memory only if complacency felt before without musical prompting was already part of our experience. It is only with the memory of feelings in our mind that we can have any feelinglike reaction caused by music.[emphases added]...
An emotional response to music is only possible under special circumstances. First of all you have to have felt the emotion that a musical moment could be intended to evoke. Second of all the music must through its various means of depiction, in some way replicate, in however distilled and/or telegraphed an idiom, the emotional content that you have already felt so as to evoke it once more. If you have never felt X and a musical work successfully evokes X for those who have felt X in a given cultural and social context then the music isn't going to evoke X emotion in you. The easiest example of how this doesn't work is to say that those who have never been in love may not really appreciate what it is about love songs that evokes memories of love in those who have been in love or currently are in love. For the person who has not felt that there is no "our" to the phrase "our song" that is the case for lovers and beloveds.
What Borstlap has written does not necessarily disagree, at any point, with any of the Hindemith I've just quoted. Music can resonate with emotions we have already felt. I agree. But ... the caveat I think is necessary is to point otu that Hindemith was right to say that music cannot replicate within you the memory of a feeling you have never had.
What is the pratical significance of this? Well ... someone once said those who have will be given more and those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them. if art can be construed in some kind of religious terms this can play out in a kind of winner-take-all emotional lottery ... but perhaps only as perceived by those who feel by dint of their cultural consumption they have in some sense "won" the cultural lottery of accumulated feeling-through-music. This may not have to happen through listening to classical music. It might be possible for this to happen to someone by listening to country songs, or hip hop, or jazz, or bluegrass or blues or traditional music from Thailand or folk songs from Moravia or Iranian epic ballads.
I know for people who think of themselves as above the benighted masses that their musical literacy is above average but I'm not so sure that's the practical "take away" people should have about the Deezer survey results. Think of it another way, that the nature of how we consume music as a culture so permeates our musical culturation processes that our openness to music is mediated by that consumer aspect.
That this dynamic would not apply in the same way to composers and musicians is obvious ... to a musician ... but it doesn't mean we should underestimate the obvious with respect to people who consume music in a culture that, as Sousa warned more than a century ago, would balkanize into the consumer classes and the producer classes.
Hindemith's observation about the connection between what people hear in music and the emotions they already have to have to bring a moment of correspondence to listening can explain why it is that so many people, by the age of 28, prefer to listen to the same songs over and over again. Those songs, for all kinds of reasons, powerfully summon and re-summon feelings they have had, feelings they associate with those stand-by songs and those songs are often the medium through which those feelings are re-summoned. Adorno called these sorts of people emotional listeners and likened their use of music to the use of mood-altering or mood stabilizing drugs. If you listen to music so as to evoke a feeling of the sublime then Adorno's claim would be that you're using music as a drug to feel a certain way and that what this says about you is ... pretty bad.
Adorno, for those who don't already know this, regarded Hindemith as a reactionary musician ... although by the 1940s through 1960s Adorno would grant that compared to the likes of total serialists or aleatoric composers that however reactionary Hindemith was in his musical temperament he was a competent reactionary, rather than one of the incompetent would-be radicals Adorno found so tedious in the later decades of his life. Adorno wrote that Hindemith had, at least, mastered all the traditional techniques and modes of expression before he cast them off to explore new possibilities in his early expressionist works. The same could not be said of those Adorno regarded as musical incompetents, those who could not successfully rebel against the centuries of tradition going back to Palestrina the way Hindemith once did because these newbies had never mastered the basic competencies of traditional European musicianship.
Which thematically gets me to what I like about Hindemith and what I have enjoyed about his music since I discovered it back in my early twenties. There is a feeling composers and musicians have with some kinds of music that may be hard to share with non-musicians, a sense of excitement and discovery, discovering a new way to make music as an individual musician or composer or a new way to make music with the people you love to make music with Hindemith's music was exciting for me to discover. There were things going on his music that touched on things I wanted to do, juxtapositions of ancient chants and old folk songs with esoteric dissonant forms of counterpoint that were still counterpoint, still anchored to a larger harmonic sensibility and to a guiding rhythmic pulse. Even cranky old Adorno could grant that the young Hindemith was, in his way, charting an actually new path forward before he became reactionary in his musical sensibilities. Well, okay, if even Adorno granted the point ... I draw inspiration from Hindemith's efforts to explore what were, for him, new paths forward.
A non-musician may be unable to appreciate a range of feelings that music can evoke in those musicians who can be excited by where this new direction could go ... but I don't even believe that. It's difficult, perhaps, for non-musicians to fully feel the feeling of excitement that this music is going somewhere we haven't tried before but in a sense anyone can feel that in a given cultural context. Contra Adorno, musical fads don't always have to be at the behest of the capitalist masters of the culture industry. Sometimes music catches on because it actually is inspiring, because it inspires by introducing what relaly are new ways of thinking in music, thinking about music, and using music to express ideas (and not just feelings).
I remember a kind of crazy interview Quincy Jones gave not so long ago and something he said in that interview resonates with me. He complained, yes, complained, that too many songwriters and musicians these days feel like music is all about feeling and the expression of feeling. It is that, Jones said, but too few musicians and people who listen to music these days appreciate that music is something that should involve the left hemisphere as well as the right. Jones' idea was, in a phrase, that great music doesn't just engage your feelings and incite an emotional response in you or from you, it also engages your mind. For people who only listen to music so as to feel something, and feel it strongly, this whole ethos of music making and music listening may be completely opaque. For those who listen to music to feel a certain way it may make all the sense in the world, paradoxically, that they have scoped out and heard all of the songs that make them feel the feelings they have already felt by the time they turn 28.